With last week's announcement, Rap Genius is officially in the news game. But does News Genius intend to create a more informed republic? Or just a more cynical one?
Last Wednesday, the founders of Rap Genius announced an extension of their brand to a new site called News Genius. Though not formally launched, a sampling of the site's content is available on Rap Genius, featuring annotated news documents like a transcript of Barack Obama's recent address at a Planned Parenthood Conference.
An excerpt: President Obama is quoted saying, "Hello, everybody! (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you! (Applause.) All right, everybody have a seat. Have a seat. You're making me blush. (Laughter.)"
Mousing over this selection of text on News Genius reveals the pop-up annotation: "Obama profusely thanks the audience for their extreme enthusiasm at his appearance and the words that he will shortly deliver. This warm welcome and speaker-audience exchange flows right into a very serious, and polarizing, issue."
As with The Onion and The Daily Show, [News Genius] creates an audience satisfied with cataloging hypocrisies and unspoken implications but not necessarily prepared to do anything about them.
Applied to rap lyrics, the Wiki-style approach has become a kind of digital informer on a culture that purposefully chooses language that is antagonistic to the sterile authority represented by annotations.
Sometimes the effect is funny, but in most cases it has produced belabored explanations of lines that were perfectly clear on their own. In cases where the language is intentionally nonsensical—see “Ol’ Dirty Bastard”—the addition of sidenotes reads like a witless attempt to rationalize what is designed to live outside of the intellect.
By making an authoritative claim about a line's meaning, a Rap Genius annotation gives a false certainty to art, while implicitly denying legitimacy to anyone who might want to interpret it differently than the consensus. This is the central joke of Rap Genius: It is not only an encyclopedic authority on an inherently anti-authoritarian art, but also a formulaic one that quickly comes to feel less creative than its source material.
The formula has a very different effect on political and news documents, which are often as incoherent as the most unruly rap lyrics, but use that lack of clarity to maintain control over a population.
Satirizing the news media for transmitting claims without skepticism has enjoyed a resurgent popularity with outlets like The Onion and The Daily Show offering sardonic interpretations of news events, scrubbing out the doublespeak and dishonesty to discover the irrational cruelty and incompetence underneath. These platforms have become so uncannily accurate that Onion headlines have been mistaken for true by genuine politicians, and The Daily Show has stealthily become a more trusted source than many traditional news shows.
News Genius is an attempt to catalyze this growing body of self-aware mistrust of the media and government into a tool that anyone can use to turn their impressions into consensus-approved truth. As with The Onion and The Daily Show, this creates an audience satisfied with cataloging hypocrisies and unspoken implications but not necessarily prepared to do anything about them.
In a way, the breakout success of Rap Genius was only possible because of rap's failure to transform its anthems of outlaw bravado and militancy into anything that could legitimately take down the authoritative institutions it wanted to antagonize. The police weren't weakened by N.W.A and Ice-T. Jay-Z and 50 Cent found it easy to trade drug deals for CEO status. Everyone's a critic of the economy until an investment banker wants to put you at the head of the table in a boardroom.
Taken as a movement of socio-political rebellion, rap was no less prone to doublespeak and hypocrisy than, say, a campaigning politician or a backpedaling corporate spokesperson. Its facade of anger and revolt was as collapsable as punk's, leaving in its wake either capitalist icons or forgotten performers drowned out by newer variations.
With Rap Genius, this cultural taming has been crowd-sourced, turned into a communal pastime where we can all play a role in rap's defanging. News Genius goes a step further, offering a platform where users can defang themselves, translating their feelings of resentment and mistrust into safe, collaborative satire.
The structure of annotations defuses the discomfort of obviously false language by sparing readers from having to go through the process of interpreting it on their own. Any possible dissent is drained of its vigor by the fact that the annotations are mostly passive and entertainment-driven.
Like rap all-stars jumping at the chance to trademark themselves, News Genius is ultimately not in the dissent game. It is the product of entrepreneurs with an idea for how to profit from the obvious discrepancies between what the news tells us and what is true. News Genius does not exist to help us do anything about that, but instead use us to make money from that increasingly distressing reality. You don’t need a crowd-sourced annotation to reveal that truth.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.